May 282012

A recent video about Rita Bordone, a popular Perugian fruit and vegetable vendor, has set off a chorus of people upset that she is closing her little shop in Via dei Priori to retire to the countryside where she has her gardens. I had the opportunity to talk with Mrs. Bordone recently and was shocked to hear about her youth (she is 73 years old).

Far from the healthy mix of foods in the so-called Mediterranean diet, the menu at Rita’s house when she was a girl was monotonous and insufficient. Her father was a sharecropper for one of the parasitic local elite landowners, and despite a rich piece of land, the children were always hungry. The primary reason was not too many children, but rather too heavy obblighi, or dues. Every month Rita’s family had to provide the baron with so many eggs, so many chickens, and a portion of whatever harvest was happening.

“We had lots of chickens, but I never ate eggs. We had to give most of them to the padrone, and the rest my mother sold in town to get money to buy sugar, salt, and soap.” Rita was pained describing her father weaving dried raspberry canes into the fig trees’ branches to keep the children from eating the fruit. “The figs were for the padrone,” she explained.

fruit and vegetable dealer PerugiaUmbria vaunts its past as a regione contadina, a farmer region. This is a serious misrepresentation of its past. Those who worked the land were not happy, independent yeoman but rather malnutritioned, exploited sharecroppers: Umbria was then a regione mezzadra. For whatever reason, Italians (and foreign enthusiasts of Italian food) prefer to forget or to remain ignorant of this past of inequity. I would argue that this is a mistake. Just as Umbrians should remember their past, Americans who envision some sort of Jeffersonian agrarian republic should remember that Jefferson was a slave-owning member of a landed, hereditary elite.  ZN

See Nicola Palumbo’s video here (only in Italian).

(Rita Bordone in her shop. Photo credit: Jess Paholsky)

Mar 062012
Grain planted among trees with grape vines trained up them. With the kind permission of the Fondazione Lungarotti.

We’ve posted other modern pictures of the remnants of the agricultural system coltura promiscua (mixed farming), a system in which a polyculture of plants combine to make a highly productive field. The following pictures (used with the kind of the Fondazione Lungarotti) are from the early post-WWII period and clearly show the persistence of the coltura promiscua, as well as traditional winemaking methods (stomping grapes with feet). For more information, see our post on the coltura promiscua and visit Lungarotti’s Museum of Wine near Perugia, where these pictures can be viewed in context with many other objects from Italy’s agricultural past.  ZN



Woman harvesting grapes from vines grown around trees. With the kind permission of the Fondazione Lungarotti.

Coltura promiscua

Vines draped from tree to tree. With the kind permission of the Fondazione Lungarotti.

Grain planted among trees with grape vines trained up them. With the kind permission of the Fondazione Lungarotti.

Aug 172011

We have written previously about the so-called coltura promiscua (also referred to as coltura mista, or mixed farming), which dominated central Italian agriculture until the 1960s. The following photos, taken outside of the municipality of Monte Santa Maria Tiberina (province of Perugia), show remnants of that kind of agriculture.  A recent article of mine on the subject can be downloaded here: NOWAK–Coltura Promiscua. ZN


Coltura promiscua or co
A field with remnants of the “coltura promiscua.”
Coltura promiscua
Coltura promiscua branch detail

A detail of a grapevine growing around the branch of a Field Maple, an example of the coltura promiscua, or "mixed farming."

Coltura promiscua detail binding

A detail of the binding used to hold a grapevine to a Field Maple: the "cord" is a pruned piece of grapevine.

Aug 092011

We have another post about Tuscan food proverbs, but below are some proverbs only about wine, popular because of its fundamental role in Italian food history.

1. Chi ha pane e vino, sta meglio del suo vicino.  (Who has bread and wine is better off than his neighbor.)

2. Dove regna il vino non regna il silenzio.  (Where wine reigns, silence does not reign.)

3. Il vino fa ballare i vecchi.  (Wine makes the old dance.)

4. Il vino fa dire la verità.  (Wine makes the truth come out.)

5. Nelle botti piccole ci sta il vino buono.  (In small barrels there is good wine.)

6. Non si può avere la botte piena la moglie ubriaca.  (You can’t have your wine barrel full and your wife drunk.)

7. Vino battezzato, non vale un fiato.  (Baptized wine isn’t worth a fly.)

8. Dire pane al pane e vino al vino.  (Say bread to bread and wine to wine.)

9. Pane di un giorno e vino di un anno.  (Daily bread but yaer-old wine.)

10. Finire tutto a taralucci e vino.  (Finish everything with pretzels and wine.)

11. Non chiedere all’oste se il vino è buono.  (Don’t ask the host if the wine is good.)

12. E’ meglio l’osteria che andare in farmacia.  (Better to go to the osteria than the farmacy.)

13. Chi non beve in compagnia o è un ladro è una spia.  (Who doesn’t drink with company is either a thief or a spy.)

14. L’acqua fa male e il vino fa cantare.  (Water makes you sick and wine makes you sing.)



Jul 272011

Professor Antonio Ivan Pini’s article’s title in Italian is “Due colture specialistiche del Medioevo: la vite e l’olivo nell’Italia padana.” It originally appeared in a volume called Medioevo rurale: Sulle tracce della civilità contadina, edited by Vito Fumagalli and Gabriella Rossetti. The paper discusses the vicissitudes of olive oil and vine production in the Po River Valley from the Roman times until the late Middle Ages, much like Allen Grieco’s paper, of which it was one of the primary sources. Valuable about the Pini article though is the author’s list of sources that a historian can use to reconstruct the geography of a certain food product’s production in the past. These include medieval chronicles, literary texts (epic poems, travelogues, bourgeois sonnets), contracts, city statutes, fiscal records, and even toponymy. Pini also discusses religion’s role in both expanding (Christianity-England) and contracting (Islam-Dar-Islam) wine production, as well as the differences between ecclesiastic, noble, and bourgeois wine production. Unfortunately only available in Italian.  (Società editrice il Mulino, 1980)  ZN

May 012011

vinaccio farmer wineA surprising quantity of wine drunk every day in Italy is a direct lineal descendant of what Italian peasants used to call vinello. Vinello is literally “little wine” in Italian and refers to a slightly alcoholic liquid made from the last pressings of grapes (really, of their skins). The must from the first pressing was for the owners of the land, so farmers had to make due with what was left after that: a liquid that was bitter because of the tannins from the stems and skins, and had hardly any sugar as all, which meant that the resulting “wine” would have more acetic acid (vinegar) than ethyl alcohol, and whose color was at best maroonish. Giovanni Rebora, in his book The Culture of The Fork, gives several other names as well—vinetta, mescetta—though in Umbria the most common names are vinaccio (“bad wine”) or simply vino del contadino, farmer wine.

Italians in the provinces almost always have a favorite source of this low-cost wine (rigorously lacking a label), no longer made from the second pressing but produced without the sulfites and laboratory strains of yeast that allow serious producers of wine to avoid off tastes. One wonders how long this will last, how much longer elderly farmers will continue to produce relatively small quantities of mediocre wine for sale, and how much longer people will be willing to drink this low-quality brew.  Given the search, though, for what I have called “philological food” (i.e. food that reconnects the consumer with a real or supposed, often much happier, past), it could stick around for decades to come.   ZN

Mar 192011

We have referred to mixed farming (what would be called coltura promiscua in Italian) several times, but the topic merits a slightly longer treatment. An excellent source is the impeccably researched book by Henri Desplanques, Campagne umbre: Contributo allo studio dei paesaggi rurali dell’Italia centrale (Umbrian Fields: Contribution to the Study of Rural Countrysides in Central Italy). Desplanques shows that what we today consider a timeless rural landscape–the vineyard whose neat shows trace the curves of a Tuscan hill, or the waves of grain that run across the Tiber River valley–are anything but ageless. Indeed, they are an extremely recent invention.

Predominant until the late 1960s was a type of agriculture which Desplanques refers to as “traditional polyculture,” where instead of strict monocultural plots (e.g. vineyards with just vines) or occasional companion plantings, there were “fields” marked by a highly-developed mix of species. In these mixed fields, farmers (or more specifically, sharecropeprs) squeezed the maximum production out of the minimum of space not through extensive planting, but rather intensive planting. Because they could not, with their limited manpower and finances, purchase or agree to sharecrop larger fields, they intensified production on those that they tended. This meant primarily using as much of the field as possible, i.e. going vertical, or as the old sharcreroppers themselves told Desplanques in the early 1960s, Si prende da sopra e da sotto (“You get [a crop] from both above and below.”).

Fields were thinly planted with “support trees” up which grapevines were trained. These trees, planted sparsely so as not to shade the crops planted below, also provided leaves for forage for the sharecroppers’ animals, as well as fuel in the form of cuttings from the yearly coppicing (or, more accurately, pollarding). In between these rows of support trees and grapevines sharecroppers planted both grain crops and legumes, the latter of which provided nitrogen fixation and improved soil fertility.

Desplanques describes this polyculture as a necessary solution in a mountainous region like Umbria, where diminishing marginal returns would set in on production on the only lands left in late medieval times, the hillsides and meadows at high altitude. Sharecropping was also “inconceivable without polyculture.” The property owner was always interested in tying the sharecropper to the land he worked, but could not do so unless there was a more or less stable means of sustenance, something that the inherent redundancy of mixed farming could provide.

Most shocking about the traditional polyculture was how long it lasted. In 1955, for vineyards, there were 126,550 hectares that were a mix of grain, vines, and trees, and only 1,520 hectares of what Desplanques refers to as “specialized vineyards” (i.e. monocultures of vines , what we think of when we hear the word “vineyard”). Over 98.8% of vineyards were mixed: “Vineyards were everywhere, but just vines were rare.”  Campagne umbre is full of other valuable information–which support trees were used in which areas and why, the altitudinal limits of this kind of polyculture, different mixes of food- and forage-producing species, the sources of investment for mixed farming in the late-medieval and modern period–but the book’s importance is underlining the importance of mixed farming and its persistence.

This system could only last as long as their was not mechanization in Umbria. Desplanques notes that “there was a duel to the death between [the tractor] and the tree .” Mixed fields could not be harvested with machines, which were ever-more widespread after the first World War. He also cites leguminous forage (e.g. alfalfa), industrial varieties, and chemical fertilizers as reasons for this system’s rapid disappearance. Another is the end of sharecropping in the mid-1960s: the disappearance of the manpower and skilled labor needed to keep polyculture going coincided with the flight of rural people to the cities for better pay and the ease with which tractors could cultivate extensive fields. Intensive systems like mixed farming were no longer efficient or economical. Desplanques, writing in June of 1966, affirms that, “in the valleys only 30% of the surface area [of the fields] is still mixed with trees. The fields where ten years ago the polyculture reigned today have been transformed into open fields. [...] How much longer can this polyculture persist?” (p.622-23). Indeed, the only remnants of this centuries-old system are in the small plots that run along railroad lines, or that old farmers have maintained near their houses.  One wonders if the new wave of interest in permaculture, a form of polyculture, will resuscitate interest in Umbrian agriclture.  ZN

A recent article of mine on the subject can be downloaded here: NOWAK–Coltura Promiscua.

Feb 252011

A recent article by Gianfranco Vissani in Venerdì magazine (4 Feb 2011, p.83) discusses a dish called paniscia from the Piedmontese city of Novara. The article is fantastic first and foremost because it recognizes that this was originally a typical gruel of poor peasants, only later enobled and made attractive to the palate with the addition of lard, pig skin (cotenna), and salami, and pepper. Giovanni Rebora tells us that the cuisine of the Italian courts was peasant fare (cucina povera, literally “poor cuisine”) that was “interpreted” and made palatable to the upper classes with the addition of rich ingredients (lard, pepper). The interpreters, the cooks, were of course from relatively “humble” backgrounds. Rebora’s lesson often falls on deaf ears: many a recipe full of meat and olive oil and spices is passed off as some sort of heirloom recipe passed down from one peasant grandmother to another.

The reality is that most people in Italy, until quite recently, were vegetarians most days of the year by necessity, not by choice. Their food was extremely bland, monotonous, and often in short supply. One of the most common “dishes” was a grain- or legume-based gruel or soup. The paniscia is one of these, initially made from millet, hence the name (from Latin paniculum, made of millet) and millet alone. Vissani notes that with the spread of rice cultivation in Piedmont in the 16th Century, the dish began to be made with rice instead of millet, though it kept its original name. This is a process much like that of polenta, originally made with pulses, then the inferior grains like millet, and only recently (relatively speaking) with mais. Mais was only accepted in Italy, in fact, when it could be transformed into something familiar, like polenta.  ZN

Grazie a Daniela Bulgioni per la segnalazione.

Feb 222011
"burned grain" flour

The characteristically dark flour of "grano arso."

La Reppublica‘s regular Sunday spread on food topics had a nice article on paste povere, poor pastas (30 Jan 2011, pp.44-45). I’ve often complained about what I call “philological food,” the dishes that are the result of some creative invention of tradition, but this article seemed careful to stay close to fact. The author, Licia Granello, explained the origins of some of Italy’s less common pastas, those that were created by, as the article says “farmers with the ingredients left over from the lords’ table.” They include grano arso (pasta made from flour from the milling of grains left behind in fields after the stubble was burned, literally “burned grain”) and i maltagliati (pieces with irregular shapes and thicknesses, from the borders of pasta sheets rolled out and cut, literally “the badly-cut [pieces]“). No mention of olive oil, meat, or other ingredients that would never have made it regularly into peasant food. Indeed, a smaller side-article mentions how the difference between “noble” and “poor” pasta was often simply an egg, a luxury for the farmer (whose chickens produced them but who couldn’t afford to eat them).

Grazie a Nikos Zimuoras per la segnalazione.

Jan 252011

Though they go by a long list of dialectical names, the plant whose Latin name is Muscari comosum is called “il lampascione” in standard Italian. It is a wild plant that grows in most of Italy but is used mainly in the southern Italian regions of Apulia and Basilicata. A member of the Lily family, the plant has a olive-sized, light purple bulb that looks  and tastes like a small, slightly bitter onion. The bulbs are gathered, cleaned, soaked in water to take away some of their bitterness, then cooked and packed in oil (often with herbs or hot pepper). The lampascione is an ideal example of a wild plant that was probably first eaten out of necessity and now a part of the Italian “cool cuisine.” It is also on the list of the Italian Ministry of Agriculture as a “prodotto agroalimentare tradizionale” (traditional agro-alimentary product)